Want a way to burn calories, boost your mood, reduce your risk of heart disease, get a better night's sleep and keep your brain running on top speed as you age? Then lace up your shoes and get moving, because cardiovascular exercise is the key to improving both your physical and mental health.
What Is Cardiovascular Exercise?
Whether it's incorporated into a weight-lifting session as short bursts between exercises or as a stand-alone workout on the treadmill, elliptical or stair climber, cardiovascular exercise is defined as any physical activity that raises your heart rate and improves the function of your heart, lungs and circulatory system.
To be an effective cardio session, your chosen activity needs to keep your heart rate elevated for a specific amount of time, which is typically 20 to 60 minutes. Running, rowing, cycling and boot-camp style classes are all excellent examples of cardio workouts that target the large muscles of your body while elevating your heart rate.
When it comes to how you do cardio, you have a few options: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves short periods of high-intensity exercise alternating with periods of lower-intensity exercise, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
On the other end of the cardio spectrum, low-intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio focuses on performing aerobic activity at a low-to-moderate intensity (50 to 65 percent of your max heart rate) for an extended period of time.
How Much Cardio Should You Do?
The amount of cardio you do will depend on a variety of factors including your overall goals, current health status and how much time you have to devote to exercise.
As a baseline, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans state adults should do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity (30 to 60 minutes, five days a week), 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week (15 to 30 minutes, 5 days a week) of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or an equivalent combination of both.
If your primary goal is weight loss, certified personal trainer, Katrina Pilkington NASM-certified personal trainer, recommends going beyond these minimums, aiming for 45 to 60 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, along with a healthy, reduced-calorie diet, of course.
Beginners may want to start even more slowly with two to three cardio sessions a week to avoid burnout or injury. Or you might even try interspersing 10-minute bouts of cardio (like walking) into your daily routine and watch the minutes add up.
Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise
It's no secret that an invigorating cardio session can make you feel fantastic, but the amazing benefits of this practically perfect form of exercise don't end there.
1. Helps Improve Heart Health
A healthy heart can add years to your life and make performing daily activities easier, and cardio workouts help your heart stay strong and pump blood through the body more efficiently, Pilkington says.
"Gains in respiratory function can be seen with improved breathing, which means, your muscles are able to perform better when they receive blood more efficiently and increase in healthy mass," she says.
Plus, regular cardiovascular exercise can also lower blood pressure, raise HDL cholesterol levels or "good" cholesterol, and help manage blood sugar and insulin levels, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
2. Can Boost Mental Wellbeing
Regular exercise can help lift your mood, decrease anxiety and improve your body's ability to withstand and recover from stress, according to a January 2013 study published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health.
In fact, Pilkington points out that when you exercise, your body releases neurotransmitters called endorphins, which are essential to reaping the mental health benefits of exercise. "Cardio workouts (and physical activity or movement in and of itself) can improve mental clarity and reduce feelings of stress or depression."
And that plays out in the research, too: In an April 2020 study in Menopause of more than 1,000 pre- and post-menopausal women, those who got more physical activity scored higher on measures of positivity and lower on scales of depressive symptoms than women who didn't exercise much.
3. Burns Calories and Can Aid in Weight Loss
As long as you're following a healthy diet, cardiovascular exercise can help you meet your weight-loss goals. Depending on the type of activity, duration and intensity level, you can expect to burn anywhere between 150 and 1,000 calories per session. Other factors that contribute to the number of calories you burn doing cardio exercise include your body size and composition, gender, and age.
Here are some common methods of cardio and the number of calories a 155-pound person can burn in 30-minutes, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
- Walking (4 mph/15-minute mile): 167 calories
- Jog (10-minute mile): 223 calories
- Cycling (16 to 19 mph): 446 calories
- Swimming, vigorous: 372 calories
To maximize your calorie burn, consider adding two sessions of HIIT to your weekly cardio training. HIIT uses bouts of high-intensity exercise alternated with short rest periods to maximize calorie burn. It also allows you to get the most amount of work done in the least amount of time.
4. May Reduce the Risk of Certain Diseases
Sweating it out on the treadmill or hitting the road for a cycling session just might reduce your risk of developing certain diseases. In addition to protecting your heart, according to Harvard Health Publishing, cardio training has also been linked to a reduction in the risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Several forms of cancer, including esophagus, lung, kidney, colon, head and neck, rectum, bladder, breast and two cancers of the blood (myeloma and myeloid leukemia)
Weight-bearing cardio exercise such as walking, jogging, hiking, stair-stepping and elliptical machines also reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis. That's because your bones respond to weight-bearing exercise by becoming stronger, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
5. Helps Improve Brain Health
The benefits of aerobic activity for brain health are impressive. A January 2020 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that better cardiorespiratory fitness was linked to higher grey matter volume and total brain volume. That's important because your brain's gray matter plays a role in various motor and cognitive functions, including muscle control, memory and decision making.
And the benefits continue as you get older. Cardio can help reduce the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) and slow age-related cognitive decline by improving memory and the ability to retrieve and use information, according to the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2019 Guidelines on Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia.
6. Can Lead to Better Sleep
Better sleep is something we can all use a lot more of, especially with the high levels of stress many of us experience. The good news is regular physical activity, and more specifically, cardiovascular exercise can result in a better night's sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
From improved sleep efficiency and reduce sleep latency (taking less time to fall asleep) to better sleep quality and more deep sleep, moving your body during the day has a significant impact on how you sleep at night. Just make sure you're not working out too close to bedtime or you might actually have trouble falling asleep.
7. May Help You Live Longer
When you take all the above benefits combined, you end up with other major perk: an overall healthier — and potentially longer — life. Cardio may not be fountain of eternal youth exactly, but physical activity does help keep your mind and body young.
When your heart is strong, your risk of chronic conditions is lowered and your brain is functioning optimally, you've eliminated your risk of death from some of the most preventable causes.
Indeed, for a July 2020 study published in The Lancet Global Health researchers looked at data from 168 countries and concluded that people who exercised regularly had a lower risk of premature death.
And another July 2020 study, this time published in The BMJ, found that those who followed the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans showed "greatly reduced risk of all cause and cause specific mortality." As mentioned above, these guidelines recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 to 150 minutes of high-intensity cardio.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?"
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association: "The 25 Most Significant Health Benefits of Physical Activity & Exercise. Len Kravitz, PhD. 2007"
- Menopause: "The role of physical activity in the link between menopausal status and mental well-being"
- Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health: "Exercise and Physical Activity in Mental Disorders: Clinical and Experimental Evidence"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Does regular exercise reduce cancer risk?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights"
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Exercise for Your Bone Health"
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: "Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Gray Matter Volume in the Temporal, Frontal, and Cerebellar Regions in the General Population"
- ACSM: "High-Intensity Interval Training: For Fitness, for Health or Both?"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Physical Activity and Your Heart"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Study: Physical Activity Impacts Overall Quality of Sleep"
- WHO: "Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia"
- The Lancet Global Health: Use of the prevented fraction for the population to determine deaths averted by existing prevalence of physical activity: a descriptive study
- The BMJ: Recommended physical activity and all cause and cause specific mortality in US adults: prospective cohort study